DNA study of remains at Delaware site find kinship among European settlers, African slaves

According to a new research published this summer in Current Biology, early colonial settlers likely survived the difficult frontier circumstances of 17th-century Delaware because they bonded together as family units to work alongside enslaved African descendants and European indentured servants.

The study was co-authored by Raquel E. Fleskes, an anthropological geneticist who spent the last two years as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in UConn's anthropology department, and colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution, Archaeological Society of Delaware, University of Tennessee, and University of Pennsylvania, who have been studying the Avery's Rest archaeological site near Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for decades.

Avery's Rest was found in 1976, registered to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and excavated in the early 2000s. It was a historic tobacco plantation held by John Avery and his family from around 1675 to 1725. In 2013, human remains were discovered: seven males, two women, and two children.

DNA study of those bones revealed that the majority were of European heritage, while three were of African descent, two adults and a kid, which Fleskes describes as an important discovery because they were among the first identified in Delaware.

"Avery's Rest is notable because European and African individuals were buried in the same burial ground separated by only 15 to 20 feet," explains Fleskes. "This is in contrast to later antebellum, 18th-century cemeteries, where African descendants were frequently buried in separate locations." Based on this funeral archaeology, we know that people were integrating in a different way than in subsequent times, which was most likely affected by the frontier location."

Fleskes notes that her DNA study of the bones was done in two stages, the first of which focused on mitochondrial DNA, the maternal lineage, and was published in 2019. It discovered that Europeans were connected, but Africans were not.

"For this recently published paper, we looked at the entire 23 chromosomes, including the Y DNA, or paternal history," she explains. "We discovered that one of the adult African males and a child are biologically related—they are father and son." This is noteworthy because it represents the earliest attribution of biological kinship between people of African heritage in the colonial setting of North America."

Fleskes discovered a grandmother, mother, and baby son among the European descendent bones, adding that this is also significant since it shows that families were active in cultivating the land, despite the fact that children and women are frequently left out of archival documents.

"People believe that settlements were made up of white European men who worked the land, died there, and were buried there." "However, Avery's Rest demonstrates kinship as the organizing principle that sustains the use of this land across multiple generations," she argues. "The kinship findings are significant because they add another layer to the story of what life was like on the colonial frontier."

DNA study adds to that account by determining that the eight persons of European origin were from northwest Europe, which matches archival data that reveal the majority of people who moved to Delaware during that time period were from England, according to Fleskes.

She adds that the genetic sources of the three African descendant individuals were more difficult to trace. One has clear ties to West Africa, whilst the father and son have mixed ancestors from West and Central Africa.

"This discovery is important in understanding the early origins of the transatlantic slave trade in Delaware during this period, when there are likely to be fewer than 500 persons of African descent in the area," she adds. "Because there is no direct port in this area, these men would have had to be dragged into Maryland or the port of New York and then transported by land."

Fleskes further speculates that because John Avery was a mariner with links to Barbados, the enslaved people may have come from the Caribbean. There is no way to determine their past or even that they are the two adult enslaved males listed among Avery's possessions following his death in 1682 without clear archive proof.

What about the boy? Fleskes notes that there is no record of him during the Avery tenure of the site, which is not unusual given that children of African or European heritage were sometimes not included in documents because to the high childhood death rate.

She describes a period when the region that would become the state of Delaware was considered a frontier. The territory is claimed by both the province of Maryland and the colony of Pennsylvania/New York, which confused landowners when both came searching for tax payment.

People farming the land in Delaware, such as those at Avery's Rest, would have had difficult lives, according to Fleskes.

"In the 17th century, Delaware would have felt like it was in the middle of nowhere." This is a really difficult moment to be alive. However, the backbones of families are still being formed. People survived these settings because they were able to create biological family groups, according to Fleskes.

"People should care about this because it is a hard look at the beginning of our colonial nation," she says. Slavery was clearly visible even back then. Indigenous people who used to dwell there were evicted. What we find at Avery's Rest lays the groundwork for subsequent colonization, the establishment of slavery, and future racial interactions."

Fleskes hopes to continue her investigation at Avery's Rest and then seek to identify the 11 people discovered there, as well as their descendants.

"I try to do my work in close collaboration with archaeologists, archivists, and bioarcheologists to tell the whole story of who these people are, what their lived experiences are, and how that can help us understand colonial history a little bit better," Fleskes adds. "Archive documents can be extremely biased." They are written from the perspective of upper-class white men. Ancient DNA can assist us in reading between the lines of historical materials and understanding the lived realities of women, children, and individuals of African origin."